Burquest Jewish Community Centre has invited a series of local Jewish leaders to visit the centre and discuss their approach to Jewish practice. A Coat of Many Colours: Conversations about Jewish Practice takes place every other Sunday, through Dec. 11. It started Oct. 16.
Rabbi Laura Duhan-Kaplan – rabbi emerita of Or Shalom (Renewal), volunteer at Beth Israel (Conservative) and director of inter-religious studies and professor of Jewish studies at Vancouver School of Theology – began the series with a talk called An Integrative Spirituality.
On Oct. 30, 1:30 p.m., Congregation Har El’s Rabbi Philip Gibbs speaks on The Conservative Synagogue and the Modern Jew.
“As a Conservative rabbi, I believe that Jewish law develops over time so that even a deep commitment to live according to Jewish values, traditions and rituals can fit with modern sensibilities,” he said. “At the same time, as a community leader, I also recognize that not every person wants to or is able to follow the discipline of an observant life. The synagogue acts as a spiritual toolbox with the many rituals and values that can add meaning to your life. The tension between an individual’s interest and the communal practice is both a challenge to create a welcoming space and an opportunity to explore the deeper meaning of our tradition. We will look at a few examples of how a synagogue could approach rituals like kashrut, prayer and Shabbat.”
Rabbi Tom Samuels of Okanagan Jewish Community Centre, Beth Shalom Synagogue, will give the Nov. 13, 1 p.m., talk, on the topic From Synagogue to Home.
Samuels, who does not identify with any singular Jewish denomination, institution, theology, pedagogy and the like, said, “My session will explore the idea of relocating the North American model for ‘doing Jewish religion’ from the synagogue building to the home. In response to the destruction of the Second Temple, a new Judaism emerged called Rabbinic Judaism. The ancient rabbis established a new locus of Jewish identity and connection to the home, and specifically, to the shulchan, the Shabbat table. Using the model of the Chassidic tish (or botteh, or what Chabad Lubavitch call the farbrengen), we will experience the seamless tapestry of Torah learning, tefillah (prayer), singing and eating that could be replicated by Jewish communities, with or without a local synagogue, throughout North America.”
On Nov. 27, 1 p.m., Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Dan Moskovitz will speak on These Are The Things – 10 Commandments for Living a Purposeful Life.
“Reform Judaism in general emphasizes the moral ethical commandments as being obligatory while the spiritual ritual commandments are more subjective to the individual worshipper with the autonomy to make meaningful, informed choices in their personal practice,” said Moskovitz. “My current rabbinate as senior rabbi of Temple Sholom is shaped by an emphasis on finding meaning through Jewish custom and practice, social justice work, inclusion, outreach to the unaffiliated and developing a relational community.
“I will present a passage from the Mishnah called Elu Dvarim, which details 10 commandments that, if followed during your life, receive reward now and for eternity…. I will present and we will discuss how the application of these particular commandments to your life, regardless of your faith tradition or whether or not you even have one, is one answer to the eternal question what is the meaning of life.”
Rounding out the presenters will be Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, Chabad Lubavitch, on Dec. 11, 1 p.m., with a topic to be announced.
Further information on presentations and presenters is available under events at burquest.org.
Zoom presentations became a regular affair at Beth Israel during the pandemic. Inset: JFS director of programs and community partnerships Cindy McMillan provides an overview of the new Jewish Food Bank. (screenshot from BI & JFS)
As Vancouver-area synagogues cautiously edge their way toward reinstituting in-person religious services, many rabbis are doing a rethink about the impact that the past 17 months of closure has had on their congregations.
Finding a way to maintain a community connection for thousands of Jewish families became an imperative for all of the synagogues early on in the pandemic. Not surprisingly, for many, the answer became cutting-edge technology. But careful brainstorming and halachic deliberations remained at the heart of how each congregation addressed these urgent needs.
“We immediately realized that services per se were not going to work over electronic medium,” Congregation Schara Tzedeck’s Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt told the Independent.
He said Orthodox rabbis across the world were already discussing halachah (Jewish law) in light of the pandemic when the province of British Columbia announced the shutdown in March of last year. “We realized that we weren’t going to offer any services,” he said. “We can’t have a minyan online.”
But that didn’t mean they couldn’t offer support. Schara Tzedeck’s answer to that need was only one of many innovative approaches that would come up. For example, to help congregants who had lost family members, the Orthodox shul devised a new ritual, as the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish requires a minyan (10 men or 10 men and women, depending on the level of orthodoxy, gathered together in one physical location).
“What we did is immediately [start a Zoom] study session in lieu of Kaddish. [The Mourner’s] Kaddish is based on this idea of doing a mitzvah act, which is meritorious for the sake of your loved one, so we substituted the study of Torah for the saying of Kaddish,” he explained.
For many other communities, such as the Conservative synagogue Congregation Beth Israel, the deliberations over how to apply halachah in unique moments such as these were just as intense. For these instances, said BI’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, rabbis saw another imperative.
“This is what is called she’at had’chak, or a time of pressure,” Infeld said. “It’s a special time, it’s a unique time, and so we adapted to the time period.”
The concept allows a reliance on less authoritative opinions in urgent situations. So, for example, with respect to reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, Infeld said, “We felt that, especially in this time period, people would need that emotional connection, or would need that emotional comfort of saying Mourner’s Kaddish when they were in mourning, and so we have not considered this [internet gathering to be] a minyan, except for Mourner’s Kaddish,” Infeld said. He noted that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, which reviews halachic decisions for the Conservative movement, has adopted the same position.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay, who leads the Orthodox Sephardi synagogue Congregation Beth Hamidrash, said that although his congregation would not hold Mourner’s Kaddish online, venues like Zoom played a vital role in allowing the congregation to meet during shivah, the first seven days of mourning. Like a traditional shivah, which takes place in the mourner’s home, often with a small number of visitors, an online shivah gave community members a chance to attend and extend support as well.
“That was actually an especially meaningful [opportunity],” Gabay said. “The mourners, one after another, told me that, first of all, you don’t often get the opportunity to have so many people in the room, all together, listening.”
For members of the Bayit Orthodox congregation in Richmond, an online shivah meant family on the other side of the country could attend as well. “What was most interesting, of course, was the people from all across the world,” remarked Rabbi Levi Varnai. “You can have people who are family, friends, cousins, from many places in the world, potentially.”
Vancouver’s Reform Congregation Temple Sholom also came to value the potential of blending online media with traditional venues. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz said the congregation had been streaming its services and classes as much as a decade before the pandemic arrived. But lifecycle events, he said, demanded a more personal approach, one that would still allow families to actually participate in reading from the Torah scroll, while not violating the restrictions on large public attendance.
“The big change is that we brought Torah to everybody’s home,” he said. Literally. Moskovitz or his associate, Rabbi Carey Brown, would deliver the scroll in a large, specially fitted container, along with a prayer book, instructions and other necessary accoutrements.
“We had a document camera so, when we streamed, you could look down on the Torah as it was being read on screen. Those were very special moments on a front porch when I would deliver Torah, socially distanced with a mask on, early on in the pandemic,” he said. “I had a mask and I had rubber gloves and they had a mask, and you put something down and you walked away. We got a little more comfortable with service transmission later on.”
Switching to online media also has broadened the opportunities for classes and social connections. Infeld said Beth Israel moved quickly to develop a roster of classes as soon as it knew that there would be a shutdown.
“We realized right away that we can’t shut down. We may need to close the physical building, but the congregation isn’t the building. The congregation is the soul [of Beth Israel]. We exist with or without the building,” he said. “And we realized that for us to make it through this time period in a strong way, and to emerge even stronger from it, we would have to increase our programming.”
He said the synagogue’s weekly Zoom and Learn program has been among its most popular, hosting experts from around the world and garnering up to 100 or more viewers each event. The synagogue also hosts a mussar (Jewish ethics) class that is regularly attended. “We never had a daily study session,” Infeld said. “Now we [do].”
For Chabad centres in the Vancouver area, virtual programming has been a cornerstone of success for years and they have expanded their reach, even during the pandemic. “We have had more classes and more lectures than ever before, with greater attendance,” said Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, who runs Chabad Richmond.
Zoom and other online mediums mean that the centres don’t have to fly in presenters if they want to offer an event. Like other synagogues, Chabad Richmond can now connect their audiences directly with experts from anywhere in the world.
“We can’t go back”
All of the synagogues that were contacted for this story acknowledged that online media services had played an important role in keeping their communities connected. And most felt that they will continue to use virtual meeting spaces and online streaming after the pandemic has ended.
“As our biggest barrier to Friday night participation was the fact that many families were trying to also fit in a Shabbat dinner with small children, the convenience of the Friday livestream is worth including in the future,” said Rabbi Philip Gibbs, who runs the North Shore Conservative synagogue Congregation Har El.
“We’re scoping bids to instal a Zoom room in our classroom space so that we can essentially run a blended environment,” Rosenblatt said. “We anticipate, when restrictions are lifted, some people will still want to participate by Zoom and some people will want to be in person.”
However, some congregations remain undecided as to whether Zoom will remain a constant in their services and programming.
Rabbi Susan Tendler said that the virtual meeting place didn’t necessarily mesh with all aspects of Congregation Beth Tikvah’s Conservative service, such as its tradition of forming small groups (chavurot) during services. “We are talking about what that will look like in the future,” she said, “yet realize that we must keep this door open.”
So is Burquest Jewish Community Association in Coquitlam, which is looking at hybrid services to support those who can’t attend in person. “But these activities will probably not be a major focus for us going forward,” said board member Dov Lank.
For Or Shalom, a Jewish Renewal congregation, developing ways to bolster classes, meditation retreats and other programs online was encouraging. Rabbi Hannah Dresner acknowledged that, if there were another shutdown, the congregation would be able to “make use of the many innovations we’ve conceived and lean into our mastery of virtual delivery.”
For a number of congregations, virtual services like Zoom appear to offer an answer to an age-old question: how to build a broader Jewish community in a world that remains uncertain at times and often aloof.
The Bayit’s leader, Rabbi Varnai, suggests it’s a matter of perspective. He said finding that answer starts with understanding what a bayit (home) – in this case, a Jewish house of worship – is meant to be.
The Bayit, he said, is “a place for gathering community members and for coming together. The question, how can we still be there for each other, causes us to realize that we can’t go back to as before.” After all, he said, “community service is about caring for each other.”
Jan Lee’s articles, op-eds and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
More than 100 people came out to Burquest Community Association’s Purim carnival this year. (photo from Burquest)
At the end of a short, upward-sloping driveway in Port Coquitlam, what was originally a Jehovah’s Witness centre was converted into a Jewish community centre a couple of decades ago. The community the centre houses, Burquest, has been active since 1973. As the Jewish presence in the Tri-Cities grows, it is playing an increasingly essential role in providing services and connecting Jews to one another and to our culture and traditions.
The Burquest Jewish Community Association is dedicated to the “religious, social, cultural and educational needs of the Jewish population of the Fraser Valley,” with a membership of around 70 families, according to their website. The membership is diverse, with roots in five continents and a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds and interests, ranging in age from infants to grandparents. Yet, two years ago, the community’s future was uncertain – the board was considering continuing under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, until Shoshana Szlachter stepped up to offer new leadership. She became board president just over a year ago.
“We were suffering from an onerous debt, it didn’t look like there was enough membership to keep it going,” Rudy Rozanski, Burquest vice-president, told the Jewish Independent. “A few of us got together, and Shoshana was at the head of that, and we decided that we do believe in the future of Burquest and we decided we did want to re-invigorate it. We had many ideas and they were instituted by Shoshana in a clear and positive way. We transformed it into a centre for Jewish learning, as well as being a community centre.”
Part of Burquest’s new success seems to lie in going back to their origins. “When I first joined Burquest, we were non-denominational, and then went Reform. But that didn’t work out as an experiment,” said Rozanski. “In a sense, we’ve returned to our roots.”
A year into Burquest’s renewal, things are looking up.
“Financially, we’ve come along really well,” said Szlachter. “When I came in, I thought, there’s still some life in this old donkey, let’s give it a kick and see what happens.”
The community reduced the cost of seats for the High Holidays and gave free memberships to those who bought tickets – this tripled membership. The centre has also gotten key grants, including from Federation, the Waldman Foundation and the City of Coquitlam. They have partnered with PJ Library to offer activities for children, as well as expanding their programming overall. For example, Burquest now has a Seniors on the Go program, covering yoga for seniors, mah jongg, art and piano gatherings, and a lunch-and-learn program on Jewish genealogy. There is a women’s class led by Devorah Brody, a teen club, Maccabee Kids (with optional Hebrew lessons) and a parent-and-tot drop-in program called Coffee and Knishes. Cantor Steve Levin leads religious services, and holiday events have been well-attended, with some 100 people joining the Chanukah and Purim celebrations.
“For a small community, our calendar is pretty full,” said Szlachter.
“I really enjoy the wide range of programming that Burquest is now offering,” said Sandra Hochstein, who has been involved with Burquest for 20 years. “When my daughters were young, I participated in all the child-oriented activities and am glad to see they are still there and going strong. Now that I am an empty-nester and newly retired, I love being able to participate in the adult activities, such as lunch-and-learn sessions and Monday morning yoga. I still appreciate the sense of community that I feel when attending Shabbat or High Holiday services.”
Asked about Szlachter’s role in Burquest’s “renewal,” Rozanski said, “Shoshana is an outstanding leader who is genuinely effective and concerned about our community, and her decisions regarding Burquest’s future have been unanimously applauded. Renewal is the right word for what our community is going through.”
More information about Burquest can be found at burquest.org.
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
This August, JCC Camp Shalom will also take place at Burquest Jewish Community Centre. (photo from JCC Camp Shalom)
The Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s JCC Camp Shalom for children and youth living in the Metro Vancouver area is coming to Burquest Jewish Community Centre Aug. 21 to Sept. 1.
Four years ago, a collaboration between JCC Camp Shalom and the Aleph in the Tri-Cities group began with the support of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. This made it possible for children living in regional communities to attend JCC Camp Shalom in Vancouver.
This year, thanks to a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Vancouver, JCC Camp Shalom will venture into the Tri-Cities and run its first outreach session of the summer camp at the Burquest Jewish Community Centre.
This camp will look and feel just like JCC Camp Shalom: Jewish exploration and an Israel connection, while celebrating Canada 150; fieldtrips in nature and an overnight camping trip are included as well. The outreach camp also has free bus transportation and rates matching other camps in the area. Israeli and Jewish families living in Burnaby, New Westminster, the Tri-Cities (Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody) and beyond will be able to register their children ages 5-13 for one or two weeks of full-day camp. Registration opens May 5.
“This summer, we are finally going to have an outreach Camp
Shalom on our doorstep within our hometown!” said Yossi Dagan of the Aleph in the Tri-Cities group, who has been part of the project since its inception.
“As a community member living in the Tri-Cities, I am so excited to be able to send my children to a Jewish day camp so close to home,” said Tammy King, mother of three and program coordinator for Burquest. “For the first time, they will be able to participate in Jewish programming, learn about Israel and meet other Jewish kids their own age. This is definitely an exciting opportunity for Jewish families living outside of Vancouver.”